Dutch Trade in Asia Part 1: Papers of Hendrik Doeff
Doeff in Japan The name Hendrik Doeff (1777-1835) is a celebrated one in the history of Dutch cultural and commercial relations with Japan and the East. As a young man of nineteen he went out to the Indies to work in Batavia for the East India Company. In 1799 he was assigned to the Dutch trading post on the artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor, working his way up from clerk to director by 1803. During his stay in Japan he acquired a vast amount of knowledge of the country, its people, culture and language.
He saw to it that the Dutch maintained their monopoly of trade with Japan, which they had held as the only western power since the closing of the country in 1639. During the French annexation of the Netherlands (1810-1813) Deshima was one of only two places in the world where the Dutch flag continued to fly (the other was Elmina on the Gold Coast in West Africa). When the English took possession of the Dutch colony of Java in 1811 during the Napoleonic wars, the lieutenant-governor of the East Indies, Thomas Stafford Raffles (founder of Singapore) made attempts to take over Deshima as well, sending out ships that year and the following to persuade Doeff to strike the flag in favor of the English. Whatever offers they made, he adamantly refused and the English left empty-handed: “it was easy to say, but not so easily done, as the governor of Java found out”, Doeff later noted in his memoirs
Herinneringen uit Japan (Haarlem 1833, p. 225*). On 6 December 1817, Doeff turned over control of the post to his successor Jan Cock Blomhoff and said farewell to “Japan, where I had spent half my life” (p. 254).
Scholarly pursuits In addition to his commercial talents, Doeff had a keen scholarly interest in Japan and undertook research into Japanese customs, mores and religion. He learned the language quickly and worked almost daily with the Japanese interpreters to teach them Dutch, which they used as a vehicle to gather knowledge of the West (so-called
rangaku “Dutch learning”). These linguistic exchanges resulted in a manuscript for a Dutch-Japanese dictionary, which he hoped to have published in Europe. The Japanese authorities, however, forbade him to take his work with him. He managed to make a copy in secret and smuggled it out of Deshima when he left, but this text and his entire collection of artifacts and scientific papers were all tragically lost in the shipwreck of the
Admiral Evertsen during his return voyage to the Netherlands from Batavia in 1819. The ship had gotten into trouble in the Indian Ocean and though for a tense moment all on board “looked death in the eye” (p. 256), they were (
continued on reverse) rescued by an American sealer, the
Pickering, off Diego Garcia. His pregnant wife survived the wreck, but died soon after on the next leg of the homeward journey.
Activities in the Netherlands Back home Doeff remained occupied for the rest of his life with the Japanese and East Indies trade, acting as an advisor to the government and various merchants and commercial enterprises. He played a role in the founding of the “Nederlandsche Handel¬maatschappij” (NHM) (Netherlands Trading Society) in 1824 under the patronage of King William I, which was intended to exploit the East Indies colony and develop trade with it and with Asia more generally. He also pursued his scholarly interests, engaging in a controversy with P.F. Von Siebold over the authorship of the Dutch-Japanese dictionary claimed by the latter. His memoirs of Japan cited above have recently been translated as
Recollections of Japan (2003). He died in Amsterdam in 1835.
Contents of the collection The papers in this collection cover the following subjects:
• several episodes during his
tenure at Deshima, including the visit to Japan of the Russian ambassador in 1804
commercial activities and advice in the Japan and Indies trade after his return (1819-1835) including
• much incoming and outgoing correspondence with political and commercial figures, firms and organizations
• documents concerning the selection and sending of gifts for the Shogun and the governor of Nagasaki
• many documents concerning the founding and functioning of the Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappij (NHM) (1824-1835)
• documents of a
personal nature concerning among others his pension and claims against the English government, is role as curator or manager in various property questions and legacies, and an article and newspapers clippings on his life and work
scholarly writings and other documentation, including manuscripts of “Herinneringen uit Japan”, correspondence concerning his lost dictionary and that compiled by J.F. Overmeer Fisscher, the controversy with Von Siebold, various reviews, notes and comments, and others.